Contemporary art is, in a way, a factory of images, a way of understanding artworks, which have become classics. Homage is a fairly known genre that still preserves its charm. A new interpretation can significantly change the content of an artwork. It is a sort of adaptation of the “immutable values” within contemporary space where these values are now lost.
Erwin Olaf, a Dutch photographer, has created a series of works referring to “The Last Honours to Counts Egmont and Hoorn” (1851), a renowned painting by a 19th century Belgian artist Louis Gallait. It is a matter of common knowledge that the “story of chopped-off heads” got poeticized in music and literature by Beethoven and Goethe, who gave it their own romantic interpretation. It is now translated into the language of photography – the most “mass-oriented” artistic form. The Olaf’s work is, above all, a spectacle. The displayed photographs are colorful canvases of traditional genres – historical scene, formal portraits, and still life. The photograph “paraphrases” historical and heroic drama into a fancy-dress theatrical show, a sumptuous performance decorated in a rich and elegant way. The project was fulfilled in 2012 on the commission of the Gaasbeek Castle (Brussels), which was once owned by Count Egmont.
Just as in the Louis Gallait’s painting, the protagonists of the Last Honours scene are the beheaded Counts Egmont and Hoorn surrounded by the members of the Brussels Crossbow Guild. The photographer introduces new characters to the set – the Count’s widow Sabine and his daughter Johanna. The images of the woman and the child add a more accentuated shade of melodrama to the subject matter. A pageboy in the center of the composition represents a subtle allusion to the last owner of the Castle – Marchioness Arconati Visconti – a commoner who married a wealthy nobleman.
Olaf complemented the main composition with a series of portraits of the characters following the pattern of artistic representation of the 18th and 19th century – a noble bearded man with a masculine appearance – the Dean of the Guild of Crossbowmen; the Spanish soldier in shiny armor; the Spanish spy squeezing a dagger; Egmont’s widow and daughter in mourning. The power of the photographic images consists in rendering these phantoms of the past more authentic, for they are now captured with the camera as opposed to brushes and paint. Compiling a renowned pictorial motif, Olaf offers it in a “consumeristic form” – an attractive, tempting, impeccable one. It is more about evident sensuality and acting, admiring the material and often superficial side of the image. As an artist of the age of consumerism, Olaf implements cultural marketing strategies in the most meticulous way.
Along with the portraits and the historical scene, the series contains “Still Life with the Count of Egmont’s Heart”. The “intellectual” still life genre had several forms – Vanitas and Memento mori. Such paintings required an understanding of religious symbolism. Nowadays the 18th century iconography is considered in a much wider way and is related not only to the problems of physical or spiritual death but also to more philosophical subjects, such as “death of God”, death of civilization and culture, death of the author, death of art.
History is something lost a long time ago, something interpreted by descendants who renew it or create a “contemporary” version of the past. Unlike the prosaic, the idyllic turns out to have a bigger price, especially if set to achieve commercial success. The human race always wishes to find shelter from positivism, progress, utopias and dystopias, confusion of the present and uncertainty of the future in its mythologized past. Indulging the audience’s desire to touch the “ideal past” or even to be transferred there, today’s consumeristic culture creates its colorful set and countless remakes.